Watching The Basketballs Float By



There’s always something new headed your way, especially if you live beside a river. I visited Wendell Berry recently and we had the most marvelous time just sitting on his porch watching the Kentucky River flow by. The whole state had been experiencing serious flooding at that time and the river was way out of banks, licking up against his garden. Not as high as the “Thirty Seven Flood,” as it is referred to in Kentucky, which covered what would become his garden. (Everyone along the river knows exactly how high that famous flood rose, either in memory and with in-land markers.) We were discussing the awful erosion this part of Kentucky has suffered because of last few years’ corn and soybean craze that suckered landowners to once again cultivate land that their ancestors had learned the hard way should be kept in pasture. We had seen lots of gullies newly gouged out the rolling landscape on our way to Wendell’s farm. I was wondering how much mud would be deposited in the Gulf of Mexico just from this flood. Then Wendell said, in that tone of voice he assumes when he is about to say something droll: “But I haven’t seen any basketballs float by for an hour or so.”

“Please?” We were at the height of March Madness at the time, but basketball was not a part of the kind of madness we were discussing.

“When the water comes up this high this fast, hundreds of basketballs and soccer balls come floating past,” Wendell said.

I started watching for basketballs. In a flood on a big river like this, the debris all goes to the center of the river. It looks like a ribbon of something almost solid out there. One big white thing bobbing by at that moment, Wendell said, was part of a floating boat dock popular along the river. Some lumps were logs. Most were unidentifiable. The flooding river was much more fascinating to watch than a basketball game. Whatever happens to all that flotsam? (I haven’t found out yet.)

“Used to be, corn shocks floated down in flood waters,” he went on. “There was a fellow years ago famous for his flock of privies sitting up on his land above the river. He had a power boat he used during floods to drag them out of the river. Could use them for all sorts of things.”

That reminded me of another famous river rat, Harlan Hubbard, whom I had visited on the banks of the Ohio River years ago. He had pulled a huge roll of paper from the river. Water had soaked the outer two inches or so but he said he gained enough usable paper to last a lifetime. Some of the lumber in the house he had built (above the Thirty Seven Flood waterline to be sure) came from the river too. When I told these stories to Carol’s family whom we visited later, they remembered a relative who lived along the upper Mississippi. He and a neighbor had great fun competing with each other. When they spotted something floating by that looked interesting they would jump in their canoes and see who could latch on to it first.

Big Data could count the basketballs floating by and correlate it with the density of the mud in the water. Then it could figure out how to deduce from the number of basketballs per hour how much erosion was taking place on the hillsides. If the counters really tweaked the numbers enough, they  might be able to tell us whether the madness of soil erosion has gone up with the madness of March basketball. Cultural historians, at least mad ones like me, would love to know whether sports madness has any causal relationship to farming madness.


Thanks for the heads up on Harlan Hubbard. I ordered one of his books, the one about his time in Payne Hollow, through Amazon and have been enjoying a good read of a chapter or two each evening when I come in from the spring chores.

He and Anna were homesteading in Payne Hollow as the back-to-the-land movement was taking off with my generation in the 70s. We were much younger than they were at the time. Now as I have been homesteading here, not in a hollow but on a ridge, Persimmon Ridge, the new back-to-the-land movement gains momentum among those much younger than I. I applaud and do all I can to encourage those brave souls and have been rewarded with their friendship and inquiring visits to my farm!

I had the opportunity to see you with Wendell a few years ago in Cincinnati. I can only imagine the conversations. Good to hear you got together with an old friend.

Being a self-proclaimed river rat and permaculture geek, I found this post especially delightful. I spent a good deal of time racing canoes and kayaks on rivers in Missouri and we often experience flood stage on the Mighty Mo and it’s primary tributaries. That doesn’t dissuade the paddler in training and we often are out there with the detritus of flood-stage rivers. That area of a river where the water is the fastest — that place where the debris seems to form that ribbon of junk — is called the thelweg and is the deepest part of the channel. It is the ideal spot for a racing canoe to be when going downriver. You learn to identify it quickly in your racing days. When there is debris, it’s a good way to teach someone where the deep channel is and how to take advantage of it going downstream and how to avoid it when paddling upstream.

The thing I really wanted to say, however, is that the surrounding countryside looks so much different from a canoe or kayak. You might be in a power boat or fishing boat, but it’s still not the same than when you’re sitting at water level moving through the landscape and a chance to quietly glide along have a different perspective than any other way to see a landscape. Anyone involved in stewarding a piece of ground should spend some time in a canoe or kayak paddling down a river in quiet observation of the whole riparian zone. It’s then when I really feel like I understand how to be neighborly as Wendell Berry defines it. Diversity abounds in riparian zones; or what we permaculture geeks refer to as “the edge”. It gives me insight when I go back to my own homestead and serve as steward for what God has sought fit to let me care.

I mourn for the day when we lose you and Wendell. The wisdom, beauty and joy that you have imparted via the written word should never be ignored by current and future generations. Respect, Mr. Logsdon!

Flotsam is an interesting way to study history–to notice what ends up in refuse piles at different periods in time.

The Ohio is surely rising now. I drive over it every day twice a day. I grew up in an area where we flooded every May. We had great fun gigging suckers as the water went down. Flooding was the only way we did not go to school. Snow was no excuse back then.

I am so glad you mentioned Harlan Hubbard. I have been reading him lately. He was definitely his own man and he and Anna loved the river.

Always seeing balls in ditches and waterways around here. People don’t make their kids put their toys away because they’re cheap and they don’t value them like we did. Played in a dartball tournament in Upper a couple weeks ago and had some guy tell me he played softball with you and how good you were. Must have been a “couple” years ago 🙂

We had a flood once on our small creek where i used to live.There was a gravel pit along the creek(crick for those that talk normal. lol) that the high walls of the pit were right up against. The flood blew out a section of the pit wall and the floodwaters poured into the pit. The force of the water uprooted a few fully grown trees and took them like the pencil type fishing bobbers down the creek toward the pit and in doing so took out the old concrete bridge. One neighboring farmer had just went over the bridge minutes before it fell into the crick.Now it is down stream from a paylake and in the county(city) limits so it is now a local nuisance for the neighboring landowners with sportsman cutting fences and trespassing to go there drinking and fishing. A few people used it for a dump and even had a abandoned car there that was on fire once.But I never will forget seeing that huge tree floating down the crick and if I do, the local fire dept has it on film.

One of the fascinating things I’ve noticed is that the things floating by can indeed pile up and end up being deposited where either the pile becomes stuck on an anchoring object or the current simply slows enough for the pile to settle and eventually decompose. As an example In our area I’ve noticed floods flowing through wetlands capture cattails and bulrushes and essentially coagulate them into big piles which I’ve seen deposited on gravel bars from created by previous floods. I call them natural compost piles. The piles of organic material do indeed compost which eventually provides an area for vegetation to establish on what was formerly a bare gravel bar. After the vegetation becomes established it acts as a sediment trap which can capture some of the eroded soil and in essence reconfigure the landscape to be more vegetation friendly. Some beavers and mink, muskrats etc quickly take advantage of the new habitat and alter it even more; sort of like us rearranging the furniture. I don’t know what said critters think of basketballs.

The message I’ve learned from observing this is that streams interact with their surrounding landscapes in manners we may not totally understand. If we disregard what such interactions and don’t learn from them then we usually end up endangering ourselves.

We’re a little further upstream and on another tributary to the Ohio, (though I think my dock went by the mouth of the KY about this time last year…) so I’m not sure of the exact geography, but here all that flotsam winds up stuck up against Markland dam. I visited once and saw they had a big loader piling it all up on the bank, but the guy there said sometimes they kind of open the gates suddenly and “blow it all out”. He also said deer sometimes mistake it for solid ground and get stranded out there. I can’t vouch for any of that, but I did see it all heaped up there.

I’m going to be spending a lot of time later this spring or early summer picking the drift wood out of my hay fields so it doesn’t ruin the baler or the mower.

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